From Newquay to AFCON: The rise of Mustapha Bundu

Three weeks ago to the day, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane showed nerves of steel to score the winning spot kick as Senegal defeated Egypt in a penalty shootout to lift their historic first ever Africa Cup of Nations trophy, writes Tom Howe.

The tournament itself, held in Cameroon between January 9 – February 6, was a record breaker with close to a billion impressions across the social channels of governing body CAF, otherwise known as the Confederation of African Football.

The biennial competition captured the hearts and minds of the world with storylines that included holders Algeria being eliminated in the group stage, the questionable refereeing of an early fixture between Tunisia and Mali and the role of a number of plucky underdogs such as Comoros, Gambia and Mauritania.

Making their third appearance in African football’s premier tournament – and a first since 1996 – were a Sierra Leone side that featured former Tottenham Hotspur defender Steven Caulker, ex-Norwich City forward Kei Kamara and one Mustapha Bundu who, back in August 2015, lit up Mount Wise with a virtuoso and rather unlikely cameo for South West Peninsula League outfit Newquay AFC.

“He was best friends with Callam McOnie [a team-mate at Hartpury College] and often the McOnie family would provide a place for him to stay during holiday periods,” recalled then Peppermints boss Sacha Wheatman. “He was dual signed for us but as his primary club [Hereford] had priority, I only ever got to have him with me on one occasion.

“The game in question was versus Ivybridge Town where he practically single handily salvaged a point from a game that was out of reach. It was not just the fact we were losing, we weren’t getting a touch and it looked like the 1-0 deficit would soon become 2-0.

“My view on him was captured during an interview soon after in a non-league magazine where, at the time, I stated something along the lines that he was ‘the best footballer I’ve witnessed playing in the South Western League ever’.

“The overriding memory of his introduction was his ridiculous technique at pace. Soon, from being under pressure, the game turned. He provided the impetus on his own that started to create chances to the point we equalised but then, on a break away, Ivybridge scored to make it 2-1.”

Wheatman went on to explain that, at this point, with the clock ticking over into added time, the right winger retrieved possession of the ball and travelled at speed, weaving past defenders and, from all of 25 yards, curled a shot into the top corner of the net to equalise for a second time.

Twelve months later, following a successful trial period, Bundu went on to join Danish Superliga club AGF Aarhus. Performances for club and country caught the eye of some top European clubs but it was ultimately Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht that won the race for his signature in the summer of 2020.

Temporary returns to Denmark have followed, first on loan with FC Copenhagen and now back at Aarhus where Bundu lines up alongside former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshire.

Indeed, on Friday evening, the 6ft 2in forward celebrated his 25th birthday weekend with the opening goal in a 3-2 defeat at Vejle BK in what was Wilshire’s bow for the team that hails from Denmark’s second-largest city.

“When he came on in that game and scored those two goals you could tell he was head and shoulders above anyone on the pitch,” said current Mousehole forward McOnie, who keeps in regular touch with his friend to this day. “It looked so easy for him.

“Since then he’s done really well in Denmark and was considered as one of the best players in that league for a season or two which then earned him a move to Anderlecht. It didn’t quite work out as he would have wanted due to limited chances and he is now on loan back in Denmark.

“Hopefully he will get the breakthrough that he is capable of getting into one of the top leagues in Europe in the future but, if not, then I’m sure he will continue having a great career for both for club and country.”

Bundu appeared in all three of Sierra Leone’s group stage fixtures but couldn’t inspire a team ranked 107th in FIFA’s leaderboard towards a spot in the knockout stage, with Equatorial Guinea and next month’s England opponents Ivory Coast progressing instead.

Even so, many who remember his heroics that summer’s day at Mount Wise continue to follow his career with great interest and await the next chapter of his incredible story, one which has taken him from Freetown to Hartpury, from Hereford to Brussels and, for one fine day, to the shores of Newquay.

“It was an absolutely breathtaking goal and scenes that followed,” concluded Wheatman. “It’s so great to see he’s made it, sadly not on these shores due to bureaucracy but maybe one day he’ll be back.”

[Featured Image: AGF Aarhus]